Airavata is Hindu mythological king of elephants, produced from the churning of the ocean, and taken by Indra, who subsequently rode on Airavata in war and wherever he went.
The name has been derived from Iravat “watery” and supposed to allude to the north, as the quarter whence rain comes, or to the original idea of a cloud, in which Indra as the king of clouds, is mounted, and therefore called his elephant. A different possibility is that Airavata’s name refers to the fact of his being produced from the watery ocean.
Like all the world-elephants, Airavata has four tusks and three temporal streams ; he is large and white. Indra mounts the king of elephants on the back or shoulder or head, usually on the shoulder.
Airavata is usually presented as a fighting elephant, but in some circumstances, Indra fights from a chariot and uses the elephant more for a quiet journey, as when he peacefully ascends to heaven on the elephant after his trouble with the demons is over, or takes a trip around the world.
Indra is commonly depicted bringing down rain upon the earth while mounted on Airavata.
Besides the name of the king of elephants, Airavata is also the name of the north portion of the sun’s path among the lunar asterisms as well as the name of a celebrated serpent with many heads, one of the progeny of Kadru.
Creation of Airavata and symbolism
When Garuda, the Fair Feathered One (suparņa), the golden-winged sun-bird, came into existence at the beginning of time, the elephants also were born.
The moment the celestial bird broke from its egg, Brahmā, the demiurge-creator, took the two half egg shells in his hands and sang over them seven holy melodies (säman).
Through the virtue of these incantations Airavata came forth, the divine elephant that was to become the mount of Indra.
The name Airavata sounds like a metronymic appellation – asthough, according to some as yet undiscovered tradition, this elephant were the son of a female called Irāvati.
Irrawaddy is the name of the principal river and life-artery of Burma; also, it is the alternate name of a great river in the Punjab, the Ravi.
Irā, furthermore, means water, any drinkable fluid, milk, refreshment, the liquid contained in the cosmic Milky Ocean.
Irāvati then would be “She who is possessed of fluid” (irā).
This “She” would be the river itself; for rivers and waters are feminine, maternal, fostering divinities, and water is a female element.
Pursuing the genealogy one step further: Irā (“Fluid”) is one of the daughters of an archaic demiurge or creator god named Daksha, “The Dexterous One” a figure parallel to, and in function partly identical with, Brahmā, the Lord Creator of Beings (prajã-pati).
Irā, in another context, is known as the queen-consort of still another old creator god and father of creatures, Kashyapa, the Old Tortoise Man, and as such she is the mother of all vegetable life.
Airavata is thus related in many ways, through his mother, to the life-fluid of the cosmos. This relationship is further proven by the fact that the name Airavata is used to designate both the rainbow – which is regarded as Indra’s weapon -and a certain type of lightning: the two, most well-known manifestations of thunderstorm and rain.
Airavata was the first divine elephant to manifest itself from the egg shell in the right hand of Brahmā; and he was followed by seven mor emales. From the shell in Brahmā’s left then appeared eight female elephants. The sixteen constituted eight couples, and became the ancestors of all elephants, both in heaven and on earth.
They became also the Dig-Gajas, or “elephants (gaja) of the directions of space (dik).” They support the universe at the four quartersand four points between.
A different creation story of Airavata
Another and totally different account of the origin of Airavata and his consort, Abhramū, appears in the celebrated myth of the Churníng of the Milky Ocean.
After the gods and titans had labored at their task for a thousand years, a curious assortment of personifications and symbols began to arise out of the milk of the universe.
Among the earlier figures were the goddess Lotus,and Airavata the milk-white elephant. Finally appeared the physician of the gods bearing the Amrita, the elixir of immortality, in a milk-white bowl.
A special value is attached to the so-called “white elephants”, or albinos showing light or rosy spots, because they suggest the origin of their ancestor from the Universal Milk. They are endowed to a heightened degree with the peculiar magic virtue of the elephant: to produce clouds.
Abhramu, the name of Airāvata’s consort, denotes this special power: “mu” means “to fashion, to fabricate, to bind or knit”; while “abhra” means “cloud.”
Thus, Abhramu is “Producing Clouds,” “She, Who Knits or Binds the Clouds” specifically, the beneficent monsoon clouds that quicken vegetation after the scorching period of summer heat. When these fail to appear, there will be drought, no crops, and a general famine.
The children of Airavata used to have wings
In the wonderful age of the mythological beginnings, the off-spring of the original eight elephants had wings. Like clouds, they freely roamed about the sky. But a group of them lost the wings through arrogance, and the majestic race, ever since, has been forced to remain on the ground.
Elephants as symbols of kingly power
As Airavata belongs to Indra, so elephants belong to kings. In stately processions they are the king’s symbolical mount; in warfare they are the watchtower and citadel from which he controls the strategy of battle.
But their most important function is to attract their celestial relatives, the clouds, the heavenly elephants.
Hence Hindu kings keep elephants for the welfare of their subjects; and to give a white elephant away would make the ruler very unpopular among his people.